A fresh look at 14: Comic-book author Riad Sattouf's opening night film, The French Kissers, offers a view of adolescence closer to Superbad than The 400 Blows.

French Cinema Now—and then

Dennis Harvey October 29, 2009

The year 2009 marks the golden anniversary of a watershed event in international cinema: The launching of the Nouvelle Vague, that agitating generation of young filmmakers (many former critics) who laid siege to the perceived creative atrophy of the French film industry, in the process having a huge influence on movies everywhere.

You can argue exactly what the first New Wave feature was, but in terms of popular impact, the one that first resonated around the world was undeniably François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows. That 1959 classic is being revived as part of San Francisco Film Society’s second annual French Cinema Now festival, which runs the week of October 29 through November 4 at the city’s Clay Theatre.

Now half a century old, how does the Nouvelle Vague continue to impact modern Gallic moviemaking? Perhaps a better question would be, how doesn’t it? To be sure, there are plenty of popular comedies and occasional period romances that don’t much reflect its influence; there are also some talents (Luc Besson being the most obvious example) whose role models are high-octane Hollywood ones.

But nearly all the serious French cinema of today and its leading directors—think Claire Denis, Benoît Jacquot, François Ozon and Arnaud Desplechin, to name just a few—share a sensibility that would be unimaginable without the New Wave as blueprint. (Not to mention the fact that such first-generation greats as Chabrol, Resnais, Godard and Varda are still with us and show few signs of slowing down despite their advanced years.) These people are, simply, auteurs; there is nothing impersonal about their work, no whiff of decision-by-committee.

That creative throughline is vividly reflected in this year’s French Cinema Now program, which starts with a first feature (Riad Sattouf’s The French Kissers) in the ubiquitous coming-of-age genre pioneered by Truffaut, and ends with the latest (Bellamy) by 79-year-old Claude Chabrol, starring fellow national institution Gérard Depardieu.

Actually, comic book author Sattouf’s French Kissers is a view of adolescence closer to Superbad than The 400 Blows. The indignities suffered by hero Hervé—not least those piled on by his endlessly invasive mother—are a hilariously heightened version of the horrors inherent in being 14. Stars including Irène Jacob, Emmanuelle Devos and Valeria Golino play some of the grownups who don’t make adulthood look like much of an improvement.

Bridging that generation gap is the odd couple at center of Alain Guiraudie’s (initially) more low-key seriocomedy The King of Escape, which shares the opening slot. This very original tale has Ludovic Berthillot as a rotund, gay, 40-year-old tractor salesman who develops an unlikely mutual passion with the 16-year-old girl (Hafsia Herzi) he’s rescued from some teenage louts. Unpredictable and not infrequently outrageous—there’s beaucoup de plus-sized male nudity—it’s a pretty bold choice for opening night, but also just about the most satisfyingly original, big-hearted and improbably sexy movie I’ve seen all year. And the narrative stays more homophilic than one might expect.

French Kissers’ Sattouf (along with producer Anne-Dominique Toussaint) and Guiraudie will be present at the Clay Thursday, and congratulations are duly in order—if these two movies had Stateside distribution (don’t hold your breath), they’d likely land on my year-end top ten.

Clearly, the future of Gallic cinema is secure. For old-school (well, at least older-school) cinematic action, closing night’s double bill should more than satisfy fans of familiar French talent. Jacquot’s latest Villa Amelia is his fifth collaboration with Isabelle Huppert, and it fits her as snugly—and disguisingly—as a black leather glove. She plays a concert pianist who, upon discovering her longtime spouse’s unfaithfulness, abruptly decides to severe not only that relationship, but her career, material ownerships, ties to friends and family. Nobody pulls off unreadably intense characters like Huppert—clean as a knife, this film is unimaginable without her compellingly ambiguous performance.

If there’s no fooling around in Villa Amalia (though it’s not without humor or warmth), Chabrol’s Bellamy is a veteran master’s casual throwing together of whimsical genre narrative, practiced actors and relaxed assembly. Big ‘n’ wheezy Depardieu plays a detective on holiday nonetheless hooked into a possible murder investigation while dealing with the unwelcome return of his drastically younger, ne’er-do-well half-brother. These slippery truths soon slide out of anyone’s control, including the turncoating script’s own.

None of this remotely convinces. But it does amuse—not least Depardieu as a honk-nosed, fat ‘n’ sassy Gallic Miss Marple. Chabrol has so often been happy to poison the village well that this atypically jolly exercise feels almost like a creative second childhood.

There’s probably never been anything as purely lurid in his half-century oeuvre to date as the macabre opening sight of a charred corpse—head severed—still clutching a steering wheel at the cliff’s-bottom of a fatal driving event. Like all four opening/closing films at this year’s French Cinema Now, Bellamy is rather wonderful in its sheer, unpredictable goofiness. This may not be Chabrol for the ages, but for just now it’s . . . something.

Between French Cinema Now 2009’s bookends, there’s plenty more to enjoy, including much-anticipated spy spoof sequel OSS 117: Lost in Rio (director Michel Hazanavicius is expected to attend) as well as several admirably realist docu-dramas reflecting today’s very multicultural France.